Project Number: 730
Project pseudonym: "Edmund"
Site: All Saints by the Castle
Feature/Burial Number: 183
Born between: 950 and 1165
Died between: 950 and 1200
Man with leprosy, living in community. He was a robust man, buried in a distinctive, socially valued way.
Reconstruction image: Mark Gridley
“Edmund” was born between about 950 and 1200, in the last century of the Saxon world or the first century or so after the Norman Conquest. Although he probably didn’t live during the transition itself, it would have left its mark on his neighbourhood, as the Normans built Cambridge’s first fortification, the castle on the hill overlooking the town, only 200m from All Saints Church.
There are few signs of “Edmund’s” growing up; his childhood diet was unremarkable for his neighbourhood, and he does not seem to have suffered growth interruptions. He reached an average stature for men of 175 cm, with a robust physique. His adult diet seems completely typical of his group. He suffered from the usual knocks and pains, breaking his right forearm at some point. His teeth were good, though he had some cavities and had lost a molar. Tooth wear suggests that he suffered from bruxism, grinding his teeth habitually.
At some point “Edmund” contracted leprosy, or Hansen’s disease in modern medical terminology. Leprosy was a much-hyped condition in medieval Europe, and it is thought that it was stigmatised, associated with moral contagion and exclusion from society. This has shaped our popular image of leprosy in medieval England; the stereotype is of veiled figures confined to leper hospitals, begging and ringing handbells to warn others of their approach. As “Edmund” shows, the reality for most people with Hansen’s disease may have been very different. On one hand, the condition may have been relatively common; skeletal and increasingly DNA evidence suggests that perhaps 2-5% of people in medieval England may have suffered from some form of Hansen’s disease. Provision of leper hospitals (leprosaria) was patchy, and even where they existed, there would have been many more sufferers than could be accommodated in hospitals. Statistically, most people with Hansen’s disease must have lived in their communities. On the other hand, it is a slow-progressing condition, and many infected people may have shown minimal signs of it for much of their lives, perhaps living unaware of it or undiagnosed.
“Edmund” may have had skin discolouration or lesions, and he had visible changes to his nose region and some new bone forming in his feet and lower leg. These changes were probably asymptomatic, and he does not show the highly visible advanced changes considered stereotypical of severe leprosy, such as resorption of fingers and toes and collapse of the nose. However, he would have had some visible changes to his nose region. Diagnosis of leprosy in medieval times was based upon facial changes, and a trained physician looking at him would have been able to classify him as suffering from the disease. However, there is no way to know whether he ever received such attention. He lived before the University or various monasteries and friaries were founded in Cambridge, and there may have been no practicing physicians in the town, or, if there were, whether someone such as him would have consulted them. We also don’t know how widespread diagnostic knowledge was among non-medical people; it is possible that he was never identified as a ‘leper’.
“Edmund” probably lived before the first leper hospital was founded in Cambridge in the 1130s. Even if he lived after this, it was a very small institution and they may not have had space for him, or he may not have been identified as a suitable person to live in it. Instead, as many – perhaps most -- sufferers from Hansen’s disease must have done, he remained in an ordinary community, living and working among others. He died between 35 and 45 years old, from some other, unknown cause; his leprosy would not have been fatal. There is no sign that he was stigmatised, or even identified as markedly different. Indeed, the opposite may have been true. Among over 200 burials excavated there, he was the only person in All Saints cemetery who has been found buried in a wooden coffin. This was a substantial investment for a simple community; most people were simply buried in a pit wrapped in a shroud. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he held a superior status; but it does suggest that he was a well-regarded, important member of this close-knit community rather than a marginalised pariah.
Notes on interpretation/open questions
Skeletally, PSN 760 is unusual because of his Hansen’s Disease, but we did not want to write him up as “The Leper”, which would assume in advance that the illness defined his social identity. Instead, he gives us a chance to think about how people with different health issues were regarded. There may have been many people with skin ailments of various kinds; he was a robust man who worked vigorously, and how he was buried suggests that he was valued.
We’ve suggested an Anglo Saxon pseudonym for him, as he may have lived entirely or mostly before the Norman conquest.
This is the only grave at All Saints by the Castle where a coffin was identified, and it is the only person there who had Hansen’s disease in a way that would have been visible. Is there a connection between the two? It isn’t clear why Hansen’s disease would add to a person’s respect, status or wealth and thus to the chances of coffin burial. Alternatively, perhaps there was a negative association; in the 20th century, closed-coffin burial was increasingly used to conceal particularly unsightly remains. But medieval burials were normally wrapped in a shroud that covered the face anyway, so there would have been no particular need to invest in a costly coffin, and we have little idea whether this individual would have concealed his face in daily interaction anyway. Whether the two facts were connected thus remains an open question.